Sectarian Tension Returns to Northern Ireland

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A child rides his bike pass a burning petrol lorry in the Upper Springfield road in Belfast, Northern Ireland on March 30, 2009.

Bomb scares: two words that Northern Ireland had long consigned to the linguistic trashcan. But this week, bouts of public violence — both real and threatened — made a foreboding return to news bulletins and everyday conversations in the province. On April 1, two men were shot in the legs in so-called "punishment attacks" in Belfast and Londonderry. The day before, petrol bombs were thrown at a historic Orange hall in Belfast while a meeting of the Protestant Orangemen was taking place inside (nobody was injured). And security alerts at schools, leisure centers and gas stations — all hoaxes so far — continue to disrupt daily life in Belfast and outlying towns. Together, these incidents are creating an uneasy tension in places once brimming with post-conflict confidence.

This spate of security disruptions is widely believed to be the work of dissident republican terrorists — such as the Real IRA and Continuity IRA — and their supporters, who are all opposed to Northern Ireland's power-sharing government. It was these same groups who claimed responsibility for the murders of two British soldiers and a police officer in March. Three men — including a 17-year-old — have since been charged with the killings, and on April 2 a 19-year-old man was arrested in connection to the soldiers' murders. (See pictures of the British Army leaving Northern Ireland.)

It's difficult to say for sure if this week's events are part of a sustained dissident campaign of civic disruption or simply acts of sporadic, copycat violence. Either way, the individuals behind this new threat to Northern Ireland's increasingly fragile peace have clearly studied their history books. A similar campaign of low-level, civic disruption by the Provisional IRA in the late 1960s and 1970s led to the mass deployment of British troops on Northern Irish streets and triggered one of the bloodiest periods in the 30-year sectarian conflict known as the Troubles. (See pictures of new hope for Belfast.)

"We know that what the dissidents really want is British troops back on our streets, a huge security clampdown and retaliation by loyalists", says Dolores Kelly, a moderate nationalist member of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Retaliation by loyalist paramilitary groups — who carried out bomb attacks and shootings on Catholic civilians and republican terrorists during the Troubles — could spell disaster for Northern Ireland. A return to the tit-for-tat killings of the past would almost certainly spell the end of the power-sharing government that the dissidents oppose. (Read: "Policeman Shot Dead in Northern Ireland.")

Kelly's constituency of Lurgan, 24 miles south of Belfast in County Armagh, is one of the few areas where dissident republicans have achieved a small measure of public support. This week, vehicles in Lurgan and Belfast were hijacked by masked men, and later abandoned and set on fire, triggering security alerts closed down main roads and forced the evacuation of nearby houses. "Most people thought this kind of thing was done and dusted," says Kelly. "But now they are taking different routes to work and avoiding certain areas. People are just waiting to see what happens."

Spring and early summer has always been a fraught time in Northern Ireland. Republicans hold events to commemorate the anniversary of the Easter Rising of 1916 — an anti-British rebellion in Dublin that was violently suppressed by British troops — while the Orange Order holds marches across the province to mark the victory of the Protestant King William of Orange over Catholic James II in the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. Although the "marching season" has passed off relatively peacefully in recent years, it's feared the actions of an emboldened dissident movement could once again ignite these historical rivalries. (See TIME's Pictures of the Week.)

But despite the potential for a summer of discontent, those close to loyalist paramilitary groups (who have failed to fulfill their peacetime commitments and decommission their weapons) are ruling out a return to violence. "The situation has the potential to deteriorate if lives are lost or if civilians were to suffer injury," says John Kyle of the paramilitary-linked Progressive Unionist Party. "But we've been in regular contact with loyalist groups over these past weeks and nobody is talking about retaliation."

It's not just old sectarian politics that's driving the upsurge in violence. In fact, according to some commentators, ideology has little to do with it. "There is a direct link between these activities and organized crime both North and South [of the Irish border]", says Tom Conlan, security analyst with The Irish Times, who claims the weapons used by the Real IRA to murder the two British soldiers in County Antrim last month were supplied by Dublin drug gangs. "[The dissidents] are cynically manipulating latent republican feeling to cover their own criminal activities and to sustain them."

Conlan points out that by continuing a campaign of low-level security threats, dissidents force police resources normally used to tackle fuel and cigarette smuggling and drug dealing — believed to be the main sources of income for dissident groups — to be diverted to anti-terrorism operations: "The [dissident] rationale is to prevent normal policing. Under normal policing, all the criminal activity they have become addicted to and dependent on would have to cease."

But for those who lived through the dark days of Northern Ireland's past, the rationale behind the latest disturbances is irrelevant. They just want the violence — and the implied promise of more — to stop. "These past few days there's been a funny atmosphere in the air as if something was going to happen," says Arlene, 62, who lives in a republican neighborhood, as she takes a cigarette break outside a city center bingo hall. "In our day, we had to look over our shoulder 24/7. Nobody wants to go back to that."

See pictures of the British Army leaving Northern Ireland.

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